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Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu"- The beloved franchise's first foray into live-action is a charming and nostalgic success that should please longtime fans.
Whelp, it looks like the dark age of mediocre-at-best video-game movies may finally be at an end... and thank goodness! And all it took was a bit of creativity, respect for the source material and a delightful electric mouse to do it!
"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" is the first live-action film to stem from the beloved and long-running franchise created by Satoshi Tajiri. Directed by Rob Letterman of "Goosebumps" fame, the film succeeds largely thanks of its clever use of nostalgic appeal, phenomenal world-building and another fantastic performance from Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the titular crime-solver. And after twenty-six years of almost universally sub-par adaptations, I think it's safe to say... it is the best video-game movie yet!
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a 21-year-old insurance salesman and former Pokémon trainer whose life isn't going very well. Especially when he learns that his police detective father Harry has been killed in the line of duty at the idyllic Ryme City. However, not everything is as it seems... and soon enough Tim encounters his father's former partner, a Pikachu (Reynolds) who he somehow has the ability to understand, and who believes Harry is still alive. Setting off to learn what really happened, they eventually join forces with a wannabe reporter (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck pal, and discover that the mystery goes far deeper than they could have ever imagined...
As someone who grew up in the heyday of "Pokémon Fever" in the late 90's and early 2000's, I was something of a franchise fan back in the day. I played through the original North American releases of Red, Blue and Yellow, I watched the early "Indigo League" episodes of the long-running anime series, and of course I collected the first few expansions of the trading card game. And though I drifted from the series around the time Ruby and Sapphire came out, suffice to say, I do have a certain nostalgic attachment to the overall beast that is "Pokémon."
And "Detective Pikachu" is exactly the sort-of film it needed to be to appeal to that child inside me. It pays nonstop tribute to the franchise through fun winks and nods, and comes across as a complete love-letter to the fans with clever references abound. (I won't spoil anything specific, but fans of the anime series will surely get a kick out of a certain storyline that ties almost directly into events from one of the animated feature-films.) As a former fan myself, I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear from the opening scene through the end credits. If you grew up on "Pokémon," I really can't help but imagine that you'll fall in love with the film immediately.
But perhaps the best aspect of the film is its immense and extremely well-executed world-building. From its first moments, "Detective Pikachu" plunges you into the world of Pokémon, and it is exquisitely handled. Director Letterman guides us through the film in such a way that it is both accessible for newcomers while also feeling familiar to fans. He gives us just enough information to bring us in... and lets us piece the rest of it together ourselves. Never over-explaining or under-explaining any part of the experience, and often using clever and subtle means to enhance the film... like faint things that are barely visible in the background, or street-signs you barely notice as they pass by the camera. It makes the world feel real and lived-in. Like you could walk right in through the screen. A lesser filmmaker would have likely ground the film to a halt and over-indulged in the proceedings. But Letterman is clever to avoid this pitfall. And I really appreciated it.
I also really enjoyed the cast, and they give the film much of its immense charm. Particularly Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu. While there is the inevitable comparison to be made to Reynolds' trademark character "Deadpool," I actually think he makes Pikachu his own character. He knows when to ham it up with a good, dumb joke and when to play it straight. I also really enjoyed Smith and Newton as our key human characters. While Newton does play her part a bit broad, it worked for the light-hearted tone the film set, and I thought she was absolutely adorable. I also quite enjoyed the iconic Bill Nighy as the enigmatic benefactor of Ryme City, and a small but fun turn from the always-reliable Ken Watanabe as a police detective Tim encounters several times throughout the story. That add a bit of class to the proceedings.
If I were to pinpoint any place where the film falls flat, I would say that the movie can often play it a bit too "safe." I think it was a necessary evil in this case, as you don't want to overwhelm the average filmgoer who may not be familiar with Pokémon, but the story and the various arcs the characters go through are a tad-bit... stock. You can pretty much guess the twists and turns the story is going to take, and there's only a few real surprises to be had if you're at all familiar with basic story-structure. Still, I do think it was better to play it safe now to bring in an audience, and that a potential sequel could later take more risks.
"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" was an absolute blast for this former fan of the series. While its writing is a bit predictable, the fabulous world-building, nostalgic appeal and top-notch cast make it a very fun film that the whole family can enjoy. And I can't wait to see where a follow-up may take us next! I'm giving it a very good 8 out of 10.
Child's Play (2019)
Sorry Jack... This Chucky's bland! 2019's toothless "Child's Play" reboot lacks the fun (and frights) of the riskier, creepier original.
So there's a scene in 2019's questionable "Child's Play" reboot where a group of kids watch Tobe Hooper's camp-classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," while the new techno-gadget Chucky ominously watches them in the background. It's supposed to be a tense scene, as Chucky begins to malfunction and emulate the violence on-screen. And yet... the only thing I could notice was that the clips they showed from "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" were dreadfully out of order. I didn't care about the creepy doll watching in the distance, ready to strike. And I didn't fear for the safety of the children. I just kept noticing how badly they botched the editing.
...and that should sufficiently sum up how invested I found myself in director Lars Klevberg's new film. I cared more about a movie-within-the-movie than I did about the movie itself.
Yes, after a somewhat tumultuous production that was wrought with drama, the remake of the classic killer-doll film is finally here. And as is all too often the case with retreads of classic materials... it ended up amounting to a whole 'lotta nothing. 2019's "Child's Play" is just another toothless, mediocre redo that will likely be forgotten the instant it leaves theaters. It's never as fun, nor as frightening as the franchise that inspired it. And whenever it tries to do something to set itself apart, it just never really comes together.
Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) is a 13-year-old boy whose having a bit of a rough time. He's having trouble fitting in and finding friends, and his mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) is always working or spending time with her skeevy boyfriend. (David Lewis) But everything is about to change when Andy meets his new best friend... a high-tech "smart doll" named "Chucky" (voice of Mark Hamill) that his mother oh-so-ironically gives him as a gift one night. But soon enough, Andy will learn that there something is very wrong with Chucky... something devious... and something deadly...
Now despite my somewhat dismissive opening, I will admit that there are indeed a fistful of things about "Child's Play" that almost make it worth a watch. Almost. Not the least of which being the new origin for the beloved killer doll. I actually enjoyed the concept of Chucky being an artificially-intelligent gadget that is corrupted and gradually turns evil. It takes a familiar concept and gives it a new spit-and-polish. I also quite enjoyed the bulk of the cast, including Plaza's likable turn as a struggling mother and Brian Tyree Henry in a supporting role as the Barclay's detective neighbor. They're just so enjoyable in their parts.
So it's a shame that they are to the service of a slap-dash story that just doesn't really do much with them. It's hard not to notice how disjointed and how poorly developed the film is. So many ideas and storylines are brought up and then never paid off. So many characters are introduced and then never given an ounce of development. It feels like a film that never went past its first draft. Case in point being the fact that our new Andy is established as being handicapped by way of hearing loss. The movie goes out of its way to bring this up repeatedly throughout its first half... but it never pays off. Sure, Chucky talks to him through his hearing aid for about five seconds... but what's the point? It doesn't add anything to the character. Or Andy's new friends Pugg and Falyn, who he meets about halfway through... the movie introduces them, and they pal around with him... but we never learn anything about them, and thus we never care about them. It's just frustrating how little development the film gives to any of its concepts. All the previous films- even the lesser entries like "Child's Play 3"- at least tried to work with their concepts. But not this one. It just feels lazy.
I also took some serious issue with the direction and the general presentation of the film. I will say that director Klevberg's general guidance of the film is mostly slick and solid. It's reasonably well-shot and there's a few nifty kill scene to satisfy your inner gore-hound. But, much like the story... it feels really disjointed. Some of the visual and tonal choices felt contrary to one-another, with scenes feeling like they were ripped from different films. It kinda took me out of the experience and made it hard for me to connect with the film. There's also a few head-scratching scenes where glaring errors were left in. While I won't say anything specific as to avoid spoilers, if you really pay attention, there's some really sloppy work in a few key scenes. Again... it just lends to it feeling lazy.
And then there's the design and execution of Chucky. Oh, boy... As much as I enjoyed the techno-doll angle, the biggest fault of the film is the way they handle Chucky himself. I'm sorry... but it was a really mixed bag. And it can be incredibly distracting. It was the one thing they needed to get just right, and they failed pretty hard at times. I cannot fathom how the doll looks, moves and "acts" worse in this film than it did in the original. Not only is he just ugly to look at, which makes it impossible to buy the idea he's some hot-selling item... but the puppetry is very mixed. There's plenty of scenes where it looks great. But at other times, you can just feel the puppeteers off-camera. And there are also some moments where Chucky is replaced by a CG model... and it's always really obvious and immediately removes you from the film, because the CG model doesn't really move like the puppet. It's just... wonky as heck.
I know this film has its fans. And I respect that they found something to like about it. But I'm sorry... as a life-long "Chucky" fan, this reboot just did nothing for me. I was intrigued by it and gave it a fair chance... but it ended up leaving a very bad taste in my mouth when the credits rolled. And I'm certainly far more interested in further sequels to the original franchise than I am for any potential sequels to this film. 2019's "Child's Play" gets a sub-par 4 out of 10 from me. Sorry Jack... but this Chucky's just kinda bland.
"Hellboy (2019)"- What have they done to you, Hellboy?!
It's always a delight when a film inspires such a visceral negative reaction in me, that I have to pause and ponder hard on the proper words to describe it. And that's definitely the case with 2019's ill-advised and utterly unnecessary reboot "Hellboy," based of course on the comics created by Mike Mignola. It isn't enough to call this film simple phrases like "poor" or "bad." No, this movie almost necessitates the use of more colorful language. Words like "cockamamie" and "nonsensical" come to mind. As do words like "asinine" and "abhorrent." And most definitely "abominable."
But, to keep it simple and put it in more tangible terms, yeah... it was pretty darned dreadful. Suffering an aimless narrative, a sloppy execution and a complete lack of the charm and artistry that defined the comics and prior film adaptations, this new take on the classic cult-character is a fundamentally broken mess of frustration and failed potential. And it can go straight to... well, you know where.
Hellboy (David Harbour), a demon that was raised by humans to help fight supernatural threats, is called into action when the ancient and deadly Blood Queen Vivian Nimue (Milla Jovovich) is resurrected. Along with his surrogate father (Ian McShane), a woman from his past named Alice (Sasha Lane), and shape-shifting fellow agent Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), Hellboy must stop the vile mistress from bringing about the end of the world. Along the way... a bunch of random, inconsequential stuff happens involving grouchy giants, vengeful pig-men, multiple secret organizations, a Mexican wrestling ring and a rather randy witch who evidently has a hairy tongue. But none of it really contributes much to the proceedings.
Part of the great tragedy of this new take on the source material is that it had so much potential. Yes, we all know about the quite excellent prior film adaptations by cinematic maestro Guillermo del Toro. And everyone of course knows that the long-proposed third film was dropped in favor of this new adaptation. (And to this day, I will admit I am still a bit heartbroken over this.) But I was willing to give this movie a fair chance, because I love the character. And on the surface, the elements are all there. Director Neil Marshall has a great track record when it comes to the strange and the bizarre. The cast is oft-electrifying. And the visuals are frequently interesting. But it just does not work as a coherent film, to the point it becomes frustrating to watch. Everything about this movie just feels misjudged and mishandled.
The writing is one of the chief offenders. There's no clear goal or logical flow to the story or characters. It's a slapdash amalgamation of disconnected and disparate components that don't fit together at all. A writhing mass of seemingly random subplots lazily peppered in around a "central story" that really only takes up about thirty minutes of the two-hour runtime. At times, it almost feels like multiple different scripts were somehow mixed together accidentally. Characters are often established, then immediately written out, leaving them pointless. Plotlines come and go on a whim. And the movie frequently writes itself into ridiculous corners that it quickly and lazily solves with contrived deus-ex-machinas, giving little satisfaction. And as a result of this aimless structure, even important facets of the story like the main villain (played well by the incredibly likable Jovovich) feel completely disconnected from the narrative! I'm sorry, but the writing is just nonsensical and it does not work.
Adding to that is a general feeling of unease in the production. As I said before, the visuals are frequently quite fascinating to look at thanks to the wild world established by Mignola's comics. But that's not enough to save what is otherwise an incredibly shaky execution. It almost feels like director Marshall didn't know what to do with the material from day to day. It all feels very patchy and inconsistent. Some scenes are rushed to the point they become hard to follow and you miss out on key exposition, while others grind the story to a screeching and jarring halt, giving you a strange sort-of whiplash effect. At times the camerawork is wild and creative- see an early sequence involving Hellboy fighting off three giants which is arguably the film's best sequence... while other scenes are really amateurish and basic with poor framing and lazy setups. Much like the script felt like multiple screenplays that had been mixed together, the visual direction feels at times like it was handled by different people with very different styles. And combined with patchy editing and mixed-bag visual effects, this strangely inconsistent execution makes it hard to keep yourself invested.
And to top off the trinity of troubles with this new "Hellboy"... the movie just isn't anywhere near as creative or as charming as it ought be. The cast is great- particularly David Harbour, who makes the character of Hellboy his own. But the character isn't likable or interesting this time around. He's just a brash guy who occasionally makes bad one-liners. The same can be said for the other characters- nobody stands out, as everyone is just a bland, broad archetype. And despite the visual flourishes no doubt crafted by dozens (if not hundreds) of designers and technicians... it all just begins to look ugly and uninspired after a while. Gone are the beautiful minimalistic visuals of the comic. Gone are the exquisite and intricate designs of del Toro's films. This new "Hellboy" is just bland and ugly... inside and out.
"Hellboy" barely claws its way to a miserable 2 out of 10. It's a messy, unlikable slog. If you want to spend some quality time with the character, do yourself a favor and either pick up a few issues of the comic or revisit the excellent prior films instead. Because take it from this "Hellboy" fan... this movie is one hell of a disappointment.
"Life is Strange: Before the Storm"- A poignant prequel that enhances the story and enriches the characters despite some minor faults.
Perhaps one of the most popular sleeper hits in recent memory was the 2015 video-game "Life is Strange." A sort-of interactive movie, that original game found an audience quickly and took hold of them with a beautiful tale of friendship and loss, topped off with a unique supernatural twist. And while the story seemed to be done and over with by the time its (multiple) endings rolled around, something about the game lingered in the hearts and minds of the fans. We wanted more. More of the characters we had grown to love and more of the world that Dontnod Entertainment so wonderfully crafted.
And that wish was granted with 2017's spin-off prequel "Life is Strange: Before the Storm." Developed by Deck Nine and distributed by Square-Enix, "Before the Storm" continues the tale began in the original in a unique and exciting way, while also wonderfully delving more into the backstory of characters deeply important to the series mythos. And though it's not without its faults, and though it lacks the inherent freshness that so defined its award-winning predecessor, the fact remains that it is a unique and engrossing new chapter in the growing saga of the "Life is Strange" universe.
Set a few years before the events of "Life is Strange," "Before the Storm" follows the whirlwind friendship between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber, as they experience the high and low-points of life in their adolescence, while also getting pulled into a complex and emotionally devastating personal journey.
Much like the original, a soft, sensitive and oft-startling relationship forms the backbone of "Before the Storm." In this case, the growing connection between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber. It's every bit as sweet as the companionship between Chloe and Max was in the first game, and it's a delight to see their blossoming feelings towards one-another, even if we know it won't end well. (Which is no spoiler, as we know just this from "Life is Strange.") It's a powerhouse of emotions, and really invests you as a player, especially if you're already familiar with the series. And if you're one to really put yourself into a story, definitely go in with tissues, because there are quite a few tear-jerker moments to be had throughout the three main chapters.
In terms of production, the game is equal to what came before in virtually every sense. While the graphics have been altered slightly, they still boast that same wonderfully stylish palate that fans will expect, and the controls feel like they've been tightened considerably- they're much more concise and responsive. In order to make up for the loss of the original's time-travel mechanic, we also get a new gameplay element here that's actually a lot of fun to tinker with, even if it is shallow... that being timed branching conversation options that allow Chloe to get into verbal sparring and insult matches with NPC's. Think of it like a "snotty teenage backtalk simulator," and you should know what I mean.
The vocal performances are also quite good, though you do definitely get a sense of bewilderment throughout the early chapters in the game with the new voice-over artists. Due to an actor's strike, many of the voice-actors from the first game could not take part in this follow-up, and it can be jarring at first. But once you get used to the new actors, all is quickly forgiven. Special props go to Rhianna DeVries, who does an excellent job taking over the role of Chloe. Although don't worry, as original Chloe actress Ashly Burch does make an appearance in the bonus fourth chapter available in the deluxe release of the game.
Speaking of, this is a game I'd highly recommend picking up in its deluxe format. Not only is there a bit of extra content in the three main chapters, but there's also an absolutely wonderful and incredibly emotional fourth bonus chapter that I will not spoil... but will surely bring a smile to the faces of fans.
Where this game loses a few points though is in its general structure. The pacing feels a bit off at times. Particularly early on. As tender and loving as the growing friendship of Chloe and Rachel is, it feels a bit rushed, and the general plot sort-of comes out of nowhere. And as I said, I also do think that the new gameplay mechanics are shallow, and aren't quite a perfect replacement for the time-travel elements of the original. You just... lose a little something without them there.
But that being said, I still cannot help but whole-heartedly recommend "Before the Storm" to all fans of the original. While it falters at times, it's still remarkable in many ways, and the poignant narrative and emotionally involved writing make it one of the more complex story-driven games to come out... well, since the first "Life is Strange."
And for that, I give "Before the Storm" a very good 8 out of 10. To quote Chloe Price... it's hella awesome.
The Grinch (2018)
"The Grinch"- A review in Seuss-esque poem form.
So I just saw the new "Grinch."
It was something for me to do.
And now it's done and over.
The experience is all through.
The storyline was pleasant enough. The performances are nice and mild. The animation was just wonderful. It was crisp, vivid and wild.
But saying all that praise, there's still something eating inside. Something that's wrong with this new movie... It's a fault I cannot hide.
It's a concept that's alluring, For a film that's not too long. But stretching it to feature length... was a decision that felt wrong.
There's a brilliant thirty minutes, of story here to tell. But certainly not for eighty six. It makes it a hard sell.
But at least it was better than the Jim Carrey version, which is a film too over-hyped. It was unpleasant and tedious and overstayed it's welcome. One might call it some plain-old tripe.
But let's get back to the animated endeavor, and how I'd rate this new remix. Looking at it from an objective opinion... my rating would be a average six.
The Deepest Sleep (2014)
"The Deepest Sleep"- Though it fumbles with clunky new mechanics and some questionable twists, this climactic chapter closes out the eerie indie-horror franchise with style.
Closing out a trilogy is always a tricky thing, isn't it? So often, the third and final chapter in a story fumbles and loses sight, or tries too hard to give the fans too much of what they want one last time, to the detriment of the story. It seems like such a rare and treasured feat when the last story is able to live up to what came before.
But "The Deepest Sleep" is thankfully one of those rare instances. Though it may objectively be the weakest of creator Scriptwelder's beloved independent horror game franchise, and while it does indeed oft-fumble along the way, the fact remains that it gives the series the closure it needs. And it does it with the same spooky flair you'd expect from the "Deep Sleep" universe.
Hot off the cliffhanger seen in the last game, the player once again "awakens" inside of a twisted lucid dream. But this time, it's different. And there are new threats to face along the way as you try and solve the mystery and escape this dark world forever. For you are now in the deepest level of the dream-world, where dreaded and deadly creatures known as the "Bottom Feeders" reign supreme...
As I have expressed before, the beautiful simplicity of "Deep Sleep" is why the game excelled so. Utilizing traditional point-and-click gameplay, combined with simplistic but high stylized retro graphics that lend to the hazy, dream-like quality of the game, "Deep Sleep" was such an effective experience because it wisely knew to focus on quality of story and quality of gameplay over quantity of jumps, effects and mechanics. And indeed, the immediate sequel "Deeper Sleep" continued this trend, taking what worked before and merely fine-tuning it- expanding on what worked before without fundamentally altering it.
Unfortunately, "The Deepest Sleep" does fundamentally alter what came before. It tries to innovate what was already perfect. And in attempting to take a step forward, it instead takes the series a step back. And there's no better demonstration of this fact than the newly introduced creatures known as the "Bottom Feeders."
An attempt to add a stealth mechanic to the game, these monsters are instead a frustrating nuisance that feel jarring and out of place, grinding the game to a halt whenever they appear. They hunt by sound, and sound is produced by moving the cursor. So, basically, whenever they appear, you have to move in an incredibly slow and deliberate manner, as to not alert them via an on-screen "sound meter." But the problem is, this isn't a puzzle. It's a time-waster. Something there to manufacture contrived tension- and it just doesn't work. And this is made worse by the fact that the creatures simply vanish from the game halfway through, leaving them feeling pointless. After so much brilliance in the first two games regarding the simplistic gameplay, this new idea just comes across as an abject failure- and attempt to fix what didn't need fixing in the first place.
I also found the general structure of the story to be slightly more problematic here. And it's for much the same reason as the gameplay- it took beautiful simplicity and subverts it with needless additions and contrivances. Though I refuse to spoil anything, I do firmly think that while "The Deepest Sleep" does give the series the closure it needs and is generally well-told, the handling of a few key twists and turns is sloppy and confusing. Especially one dramatic turn near the end that just doesn't quite make sense.
Regardless, however, these flaws cannot detract from what does work. Because when this game works, it works absolute wonders.
As has been the case since the beginning, the atmospheric thrills and chills of the "Deep Sleep" universe are as shocking and effective as always here. The gorgeously moody visuals combined with the top-notch sound design make the game chilling and frightening from start-to-finish. Especially with a few well-timed jumps and some wonderfully devilish visuals and callbacks to prior entries. The puzzle-solving is fast and fun, with some great mind-benders to keep you guessing and very well-hidden clues strewn about. The pacing is typically consistent and quick, while never moving too fast as to lose the player.
And the ending is just perfect. Or rather, "endings," as the game has two very interesting alternative conclusions to choose from. And both serve as a great cap to a great series, giving you the resolution you desire while also leaving just enough questions at the end to keep you thinking about it long after you've finished.
"The Deepest Sleep" may fumble. And indeed even fall flat on its face at times. Attempts to renovate old ideas don't pay off and a few fumbling twists and turns later in the game don't add up. But the atmosphere is just outstand as always. The puzzle-solving is intriguing and enthralling. And the ultimate conclusion is jaw-dropping. It may be the weakest of the trilogy, but "The Deepest Sleep" still comes highly recommended. And I give it a very good 8 out of 10.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
"Big Trouble in Little China"- The ultimate 80's cult masterpiece.
As I sit at my computer pondering what to write out for what will be my six-hundredth IMDb review, a myriad of ideas cross through my mind. But none are so appealing as one certain notion that quickly popped up and hasn't quite let go. That being that it may finally be time to discuss what is not only one of my own personal favorite films... but also a film that is arguably the definitive 80's movie. A cult masterpiece whose audience and legacy has only grown larger and larger in the thirty-or-so years that have passed since its initial release.
Yup, it's time to discuss John Carpenter's twisted and endearing fantasy-comedy hybrid "Big Trouble in Little China."
Released to mixed reviews in 1986, the film was a massive failure for both director Carpenter and star Kurt Russell, bringing in dismal box office numbers and quickly resulting in Carpenter's disillusionment with the Hollywood film industry. And yet, in 2018, the film is widely considered to be a masterpiece of its era. So much so in fact, that there has even been recent talk of a modern reboot or belated sequel starring today's most popular action hero Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. So what was it about this film in particular that appealed to audiences over the years? Why did a box-office bomb that was initially met with apathy and dismissal suddenly become such a beloved classic?
Russell stars as Jack Burton, a loud-mouthed truck driver whose having a bit of a bad day. Accompanying his quote-unquote "friend" Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) to their airport to pick up his fiancé Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), Jack quickly finds himself in over his head as a gang of ruthless thugs kidnaps the young woman, and he encounters a bizarre assortment of seemingly supernatural foes. As it turns out, Miao Yin is needed by an ancient and devilish sorcerer (James Hong) to complete a dark ritual, and it's up to Wang Chi and his mentor Egg Shen (Victor Wong) to save the day... while Jack is dragged along as his glorified sidekick- kicking, screaming and complaining the entire time.
It's been said a million times, and I must echo it once again here- the great appeal of "Big Trouble in Little China" is that on the surface, it's a competent fantasy adventure. But just below the surface, the film is elevated far beyond its competence by its infectious humor and self-aware charm. It very much is a film told from the perspective of the dopey comedic sidekick, who not only doesn't know what's going on... but he doesn't much care, either. Burton is a fantastic protagonist because he's simply trying to get by, and like anyone else would be, he's majorly peeved he even has to deal with this nonsense. It's a refreshing change-up to see a "hero" who would much rather be chugging beers and munching on potato chips rather than rescuing damsels and saving the world. And Russell is clearly having the time of his life in the role. Imagine a really burnt out Han Solo whose let himself go, and you have Jack Burton.
Director Carpenter relishes in the material, delivering non-stop action and near-endless jokes throughout the brisk ninety-nine minute runtime. It's obvious that Carpenter, better known for his many horror films, has a certain affinity for old-school kung-fu schlock, and is just having a blast behind the camera. In a lot of ways, the film feels very much ahead of its time, with many sequences featuring dazzling wire-work and highly stylized effects that feel like something right out of "The Matrix." Heck, there's even a few scenes that feel like they were inspired by the then cutting-edge genre of Japanese anime. It's really strong stuff, and its among Carpenter's most dazzling work.
The supporting cast is also in on the fun, and everyone seems to play the material with a certain sense of affection, while also giving a sly wink to the absurdity of the material. Of course the most notable being James Hong's now legendary turn as the evil magician David Lo Pan. It's rare to see such a devious and yet completely and utterly likable villain, and it's arguably Hong's greatest role. Dennis Dun and Victor Wong round out our heroes in strong and enjoyable turns. And we even get the charming and wickedly entertaining Kim Cattral in a strong supporting role as Gracie Law, a headstrong and shrewd woman who becomes Burton's kinda, sorta, maybe "love interest."
So we've established that the film's well-made and performed, and is generally quite fun. But why did this film in particular become such a phenomenon years after release? Why is "Big Trouble in Little China" a cult classic? Honestly, I don't think there's one specific reason. The fact is, this film is a perfect storm of everything going right. Much like "Ghostbusters" or other comedy classics, "Big Trouble in Little China" excels simply because the stars just sort-of aligned. The casting was perfect. The humor was perfect. The effects were perfect. The tone was perfect. It's just one of those wonderful cases where everything went right, and people were able to appreciate this fact. Film is a careful balance between what's planned and what actually occurs during filming. And "Big Trouble in Little China" is a prime example of this. Everything about the film is just exquisite.
"Big Trouble in Little China" an absolutely charming 80's relic, and is amongst the decade's finest and most entertaining releases. With one of the best protagonists of its time, a strong sense of adventure and an absolutely phenomenal sense of humor, you just can't help but thoroughly enjoy it start to finish. There's a reason it became such a big hit in the years that have passed, and it will continue to be enjoyed for years to come. And it easily earns a perfect 10 out of 10.
The Open House (2018)
"The Open House"- An infuriating exercise in failed potential... a complete and utter waste of time.
It's a rare film that can do so much, so well and for so long, and then completely destroy itself as badly as Netflix's "The Open House." But I suppose that's just the way things go. What begins as a wonderfully dreary and darkly touching tale of tragic loss and raw emotion stumbles and falls flat with what is perhaps the most infuriating third act I've seen in years. It's a shocking and indeed heart-breaking failure, feeling so misjudged and so contrived, that the entire experience implodes into a raging storm of fury and annoyance for the viewer.
And it is for this reason that I can say with some certainty... "The Open House" is perhaps the single worst film of 2018.
Gifted student and athletic runner Logan (Dylan Minnette) is left reeling after the tragic death of his father. Grieving alongside his mother Naomi (Piercey Dalton), Logan is left cold and hollow, in a constant state of depression. The two decide to get away for a while in order to deal with their pain, taking refuge in a large vacation cabin owned by Logan's aunt, which is currently listed for sale. However, things might not be what they seem, and it soon becomes clear that there's something dangerous happening. The two are plagued by mysterious sounds and strange occurances in the dead of night. Has Logan truly lost his mind in his sorrow? Or is it something- or someone- else?
Written and directed by the duo of Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote, "The Open House" is such a frustrating film because for all intent and purpose, it starts off spectacularly. Their collective direction is methodical and deliberate. Their writing and handling of characters keen and thoughtful. And the performances of Minnette and Dalton are nuanced and exceptional. It's a movie that clearly has some great ideas behind it, and plenty of juicy themes for Angel and Coote to sink their creative teeth into. The movie spends much of its time delving into and dissecting the impact of grief and depression, and how it can destroy us from the inside. It also has some good ponderings on how we choose as individuals to deal with loss.
Such a pity then that it essentially throws this all away. While I will not spoil the proceedings, I must comment that the film's fatal flaw is that it lacks any degree of satisfying resolution. It spends much of its first hour building up to something grand... building character and themes, with great misdirections and subversions of expectations. And then it trades it in for a sub-standard and cliché-ridden climax with predictable twists and turns that any fan of horror will see coming from a mile away. It's just so... dreadfully out of place in contrast to the rest of the film. I see many echoing these opinions, and I must agree. It's a film that feels incomplete... and utterly misunderstood by its own creators. The third act is not even out of left field. It's out of a different freaking dimension hidden somewhere behind the left field! A dimension where up is down and right is wrong, and where the rules of logic, reason and storytelling do not apply.
It's a film that ultimately left me feeling absolutely betrayed as an audience member as the credits began to roll. Like I had wasted my time while the directors were snickering behind my back.
There is almost no way to describe "The Open House" without breaking out into a string of profanity and venomous insults. It's just atrocious all around- all build up and no real pay-off. Coming from a creative team who clearly didn't know how to write an ending, and just tossed together a slew of anti-climactic twists without thought or reason, squandering the immense potential and good-will it had built up to. I'm sorry Angel and Coote. But you done failed. Big time.
"The Open House" easily earns a 1 out of 10. It's among the most pointless and unlikable films I've ever seen, and I have serious doubts that I'll see another film this year that I could possibly hate more.
Blair Witch (2016)
"Blair Witch" (2016)- A contrary opinion.
"The Blair Witch Project" has remained a beloved if not divisive film since its initial release nearly twenty years ago. One of the earliest mainstream films to adopt the "found footage" format, "The Blair Witch Project" became one of the most acclaimed and profitable releases of its time, quickly generating a mass following and near-endless praise. And while the initial hype was dulled by an ambitious but ultimately misaimed sequel in 2000's "Book of Shadows", the love many have for that original film still rung true, and fans waited eagerly for a proper sequel. A sequel that would be released in 2016- "Blair Witch," directed by Adam Wingard.
The film's production was kept in a death-grip of secrecy, with false trailers and titles swirling. Nobody knew a new film was even being made. And upon release in the festival circuit, it seemed like audiences finally got a winning follow-up. Word-of-mouth was fantastic, with many horror publications boasting of strong feedback while giving the films high marks in their own reviews. And then it was released to the public... and it crashed and burned. The response was pure venom and bile. Audiences hated it. Critics crucified it. And it looked like another dud for the franchise.
But was it really that bad?
I don't think so at all.
Yes, it's one of those wonderful times where I get to play the contrarian card, because sue me... I really enjoyed "Blair Witch," and to me... this was the sequel I was looking for all these years.
In 2014, James Donahue, brother of original "Blair Witch Project" director Heather, discovers a YouTube video purportedly taken in the same mysterious house where his sister vanished twenty years ago. Footage that appears to show a woman fleeing from mysterious, seemingly supernatural forces. Still haunted by Heather's disappearance, James assembles a group of friends and sets off into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, to see if he can find any trace of what happened to her...
The great joy of "Blair Witch" lies in how obviously it is a loving tribute to that outstanding first film, though updated and appropriately amped up for modern tastes. It's what the first film was, only bigger, zanier and crazier... and arguably all the more "fun" for it. Albeit fun in the sort-of way where you find yourself giggling madly in anticipation of the next big jump or set-piece. It's a roller-coaster of a follow-up that still feels true to its more humble origins thanks to its callbacks, format and keen use of atmosphere, while adding in new twists and turns to keep the material fresh.
The general malign directed towards the film often lays in people feeling that in some way it fundamentally went against what worked so well about the original. It wasn't as subtle. It's not quite as clever. It showed too much. And yes, that is true. But I'd argue that given the passage of time and the intimate knowledge that people have regarding what came before... it's better for this film to do those things that drive the hardcore fans crazy. It's better for it to be blatant. It's better for it to be more "wild" and less "frightening." It's better for it to be over-zealous. Because that's what we'd least suspect. That's what would get us.
We've seen "The Blair Witch Project." We know why it works. We know that the philosophy of "less is more" is what made it a classic. So why would we want to see those same ideas watered down and repackaged? I know how scary it was seeing that original film in 1999 to simply hear Heather screaming "What is that?!" while running through the woods. This time... I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a film that threw its hands up, said "Screw it, we're gonna have fun with this mythology!" and actually started to give us demented glimpses of what had only been hinted at before. And I got what I wanted.
This is a film that needed to be silly and psychotic... and even a bit messy to work.
Director Wingard relishes in the atmosphere of the film in the best of ways. This is a stunningly well-choreographed film, from the stellar photography down to some of the most breathtaking sound design I've heard in recent memory. The film really does have impact, and though the scares are oft-cheap, they always feel earned. And I just loved how Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have embellished on what came before. There's some great twists and turns along the journey, and new ideas introduced, such as the Witch's ability to seemingly and permanently extend the night, add a lot to the proceedings.
I was also taken with the cast. Stars James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry are all very likable and fun, albeit in somewhat more trope-infused, archetypal roles. McCube and Hernandez have good chemistry and play well off one-another as what are essentially our two leads, while Robinson and Curry are just a blast and a half as geeky dweebs who are a little too obsessed with the Blair Witch legend. They add a cheekiness to the film that I very much liked. Almost like some of the obsessive real-life fans of the original film somehow ended up in the sequel. And though their roles are less defined, Scott and Reid ground the film as a couple of skeptic friends who are along for the ride.
It really comes down to this. If you are looking for the original film again, you won't find that here. "Blair Witch" is an attempt to re-invigorate a franchise, while doing whatever it can to spook you at every opportunity. And if, like me, you're open to seeing a silly roller-coaster of a sequel, then check it out. It's not a great film. But it is great entertainment. And I'm giving it an 8 out of 10.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
"Insidious: The Last Key"- A bit of a fumbling misstep in the beloved horror franchise. A film strictly for fans only.
I've been quite upfront in the past about my affinity for the "Insidious" film franchise. The brainchild of horror maestros James Wan and Leigh Whannell, this low-budget series has made frequent and effective uses of old-school creeps, as it wowed audiences with its tales of ghostly hauntings and supernatural perils. And through three very solid installments, it began to seem like a series that could do no wrong. But alas, the fourth chapter arrived, and while it was a big hit... it's left fans pretty evenly divided right down the center. Some adore it, some detest it.
And me? Well, I'm pretty much split right down the center myself. Director Adam Robitel's "Insidious: The Last Key" is by no means a particularly bad film. It has likable characters, continues the strong atmosphere established in prior films, and is frequently eerie and entertaining in all the ways you've come to expect of the "Insidious" franchise. But something about it just... doesn't feel right. It's a film that very much feels set to auto-pilot. Repeating similar themes and tropes we've already seen while adding little new to the formula.
Sometime shortly before the events of the original film, psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is called upon to investigate troubling occurrences in a young man's (Kirk Acevedo) home. Trouble is... his house is in fact Elise's childhood home, which she fled decades prior after a childhood of misery and woe. After reconnecting with her extended family (Bruce Davison, Spencer Locke, Caitlin Gerard), Elise and her associates (writer Whannell, Angus Sampson) set out to solve the mystery... only to realize that not only is there a supernatural threat they must conquer... but that there may be another threat in the world of the living that is all too real...
Director Robitel is a fine replacement for Wan and Whannell, whom handled directorial duties in the previous three films. Robitel's wonderfully inky palette and sense of flow makes many of the scares fantastically effective, and his great sense of pace helps the film feel urgent and fast, but never to a distracting point. This is aided by the sharp cinematography and returning composer Joseph Bishara's haunting themes. From a production standpoint, the film is top-notch, and I'd definitely be open to seeing Robitel return for future installments.
And as has been the case in virtually every installment, the cast is quite good and aids in endearing the film to the audience. Shaye is an absolute joy, and it's wonderful to see such a great actress finally given a defining role to sink her teeth into. Whannell and Sampson are charming, good fun as always as the film's comedic duo of Specs and Tucker. And I quite liked the additions of Davison, Locke and Gerard as Elise's brother and nieces, even if they aren't given much to do.
And in fact, that's the big problem here- there's not much to do for anyone in this film. Or at least nothing new for anyone to do. The movie toys with new concepts and ideas, but often doesn't deliver on them, instead doubling back onto notions and plot-points brought up in prior films, rinsing and repeating them over and over. And it makes some of the new ideas feel shallow and more akin bland sequel bait than anything else. Case in point is Gerard's character Imogen- the film establishes early on that she may indeed share the same abilities as her aunt Elise, and yet outside of only one or two brief instances, the film does nothing with this. Same goes for the plot, which is based heavily on Elise's family and how she's lost her connections to them. The movie does a good job setting this up... but instead of delivering on it, it often throws it aside for references to prior films or more meandering scenes of the characters encountering ghosts in the supernatural otherworld.
It just drags the movie down too often, leaving the film feeling like it has an identity crisis. It never feels like a proper fourth film... it feels more like an extended series of vignettes designed to tie it into the series' overall mythology. It's not so much a new chapter as it is a collection of footnotes. And even then, they aren't particularly interesting footnotes.
Still, thanks to its stellar cast, grand atmosphere and a mildly intriguing story, I'd say "Insidious: The Last Key" is worth seeing, provided you're a fan of the series. It won't win over new converts, but it does just enough right to make it worth a go for those who have followed this franchise from the beginning. Let's just hope that the inevitable fifth film corrects the course. I give "The Last Key" an about-average 6 out of 10. Definitely the weakest installment, but still worth seeing.
Species II (1998)
"Species II"- A confounding conundrum of a sequel. A complete and utter mess, yet oddly entertaining and endearing for its kitschiness.
It's a rare and notable feat when a film can do so much wrong... and yet still hold your interest and keep you entertained throughout. But so goes the story of "Species II," a weird little conundrum of a film from director Peter Medak. A sequel to the mildly entertaining 1995 original, "Species II" has always been a bit of a sore spot for both audiences and for its own cast. Heck, even lead star Michael Madsen once infamously referred to the film as a "crock of (you know what)" in an interview. Its storyline is contrived. Its handling of characters suspect at best. And its sense of pacing and resolution underwhelming to say the least.
And yet... I kind of enjoy it. Yeah. I'll admit it.
It's not even a case of being one of those delightful "so bad, it's good" kinda movies. It's just sort-of fun to watch despite its faults. It's a glorified Saturday morning cartoon for grown-ups, filled with gooey gore and plenty of bared breasts and bottoms, designed to appeal almost exclusively to our inner teenager. It's pure kitschy exploitation junk-food. It's bad... but it's what you'd call "fun bad."
Three years after the escaped alien-human hybrid Sil was destroyed, astronaut Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard) returns from a mission to Mars a changed man... Little does the world know, however, that he's been infected with an alien toxin that begins to take over his body and transform him into a fiendish monster. Attempting to build an army of offspring, Ross begins to impregnate woman after woman with his deadly spawn. And it's up to some returning heroes (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger), along with a clone of the original Sil called "Eve" (Natasha Henstridge) to stop his deadly scheme!
Director Medak, best known for the swashbuckling comedy "Zorro, The Gay Blade" and the wonderful haunted-house picture "The Changeling", does a fairly admirable job here. It's a well-crafted film, with some top-notch design work and a fantastic sense of visual execution. Medak creates plenty of moody sequences and does well with the script he's working off of, with a strong sense of flow and composition. And of course, as was the case with the original, the creature effects and gory deaths are just as mind-blowing as ever, especially thanks to the contributions of H.R. Giger. Say what you want about the film, but the aliens are just awe-inspiring and absolutely gorgeous.
And indeed, it's this execution, combined with the charming talents of the returning cast that manages to salvage the experience. Even if he hated the finished product, Madsen is great in his returning role as former mercenary Press Lennox. It's a fun character archetype, and Madsen plays the part to perfection. Helgenberger is given some more intrigue and adventure to work with here, and she improves on her already very solid turn from the original. And I thought Henstridge was even better here than she was in the first film. She's given some more emotion this time around and also a bit more overt action, which was nice to see.
Unfortunately the new cast is pretty uniformly terrible. Lazard is a dull villain who fails to inspire dread much of the time, and his wooden performance feels forced and oft-uncomfortable. It's only towards the end when he goes all in that he becomes any sort-of credible threat. Mykelti Williamson, whose usually a pretty solid actor, unfortunately falls flat on his face as the shoehorned comic relief- a catchphrase-spewing African American who punctuates every other sentence with contrived slang. And even James Cromwell and Peter Boyle- two classy and classic actors whom play minor characters- don't do well at all with their respective roles. They seem confused and lost as they fumble over their lines.
The film's structure and writing are the film's biggest downfall, though. Writer Chris Brancato's script is trite and silly, with a lot of head-scratching moments that don't add up, and weird sequences that seemingly contradict the prior film This isn't helped by the oddly nonsensical tone, which bounces back and forth between horror and comedy so often, you occasionally find yourself laughing at the scares and wincing at the jokes. I also took issue with the fact that this is a film where characters often behave stupidly just to contrive scares- including one unintentionally hilarious scene where a man actually touches infected blood with his bare hands for no reason whatsoever. And the pace is just nonsensical at times, with the film speeding up and slowing down at random intervals to the point it becomes distracting.
And yet... I don't hate this movie. The returning cast is just too good, the visual direction is just too strong and the exploitative sex and violence is just too fun for me to wholly dismiss the finished film. It's bad. Oh, it's very bad. But it's the sort-of bad where you can sit back, pop open a beer, and have a good time watching the insanity before you unfold. Especially with some friends to riff alongside you while you crack fun at its silly moments.
"Species II" earns a below average but watchable 4 out of 10 from me. It's one of those sequels that's objectively a total failure... but is still enjoyable despite its faults.
"Species"- Delicious 90's cheese. A silly, sexy sci-fi thriller that doesn't really hold up, but is fun to watch regardless.
I remember back around '95 when director Roger Donaldson's "Species" first hit the public's attention. It was built up as the sort-of ultimate "modern" science fiction film- with buckets of gore, cutting edge computer effects... and of course, its notorious use of a "sexy alien villain" whom is seeking to mate. It was supposed to be a new classic- an erotic thriller like no other. And indeed, the film was generally well-liked for the most part. At least at the time. Heck, I even remember many of my extended family members renting the film over and over again when it first came out on VHS. Of course I was too young to see the film at the time... but I was definitely aware of its cultural impact.
But alas, as is all too often the case, the 90's struck again. Yes, in retrospect, "Species" is one of those many films that was popular at the time... but has been showing its age exponentially as time goes on. It's hard to take it seriously now with its simplistic writing and laughable effects. And yet, a part of me does still definitely have a little love for this weird, uneven film. It's cheesy and antiquated and doesn't really hold up. But what can I say? With bouncing naked bodies, creative kills and some decent performances, it's still quite a bit of fun to watch.
A seedy government agent (Ben Kingsley) has used a decoded extraterrestrial signal to create something entirely unexpected- an alien-human hybrid. However, when the surviving test subject "Sil" manages to escape in a violent breakout, a rag-tag team (Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker) is assembled to track her down at any cost. Trouble is, the alien DNA has accelerated Sil's growth, causing her to mature into a fully-grown adult (Natasha Henstridge) in mere days. And her biological clock is starting to tick...
Part of the charm of the film is that the cast is quite varied and talented. Though Natasha Henstridge was definitely cast more for her looks than her chops, she's pretty decent in the role of Sil, and makes for an adequately menacing presence. She's odd and aloof, and plays the part of an alien trying to blend in pretty decently. But the real highlights here are definitely Madsen, Helgenberger and Kingsley. Madsen plays it cool and sleek as he oft does in these types of roles, but for his part- that of a mysterious operative- it works very well. Helgenberger is charming and fun as a biologist whom helps study Sil. And Kingsley looks like he's having a blast and a half as a smarmy government stooge. Molina and Whitaker are also pretty darned good, adding a sense of class to the film, and it's fun to see them in an earlier film now that they've both gained great fame.
And for the most part, the general production is fantastic. Director Donaldson does just about everything he can with the material, and there's a number of shockingly effective sequences. His sense of flow, composition and pacing is top-notch. I also very much adored the work of creature designer H.R. Giger. Giger, whom also famously designed the titular baddie from the original "Alien," crafts a new fiendish monster for the ages in Sil- a beautiful and deadly seductress. It has all of Giger's trademarks, and is stunning to behold on-screen- especially with the amazing practical effects and puppetry. When it goes old-school, the effects are just mind-warping. And the gory kills are among the decade's best!
But it's sadly not all sunshine and roses. And there are some big flaws that are impossible to ignore here. The film was definitely the product of its time, and it just doesn't up under modern scrutiny. Not only are the plethora of digital effects wonky and overly artificial, but the script by Dennis Feldman also leaves much to be desired. It feels a bit contrived and quaint looking back, and it's hard to take it seriously as a result. I also do take issue with how the film's most notorious facet- the sexuality- was handled. Don't get me wrong, I genuinely like the idea here. And it's safe to say that erotic thrillers can be masterful and the use of sex can add a lot to a film. But it comes off as a bit too skeevy here. It feels like nothing more than an excuse to show off the actress' "assets" and film some softcore "skinemax" material. And yet at the same time, it also feels oddly tame in many ways because it's basically only focused on bared breasts and brief simulated sex scenes. There just isn't much balance to it. Using sex and sex appeal in a film is a fine line. And "Species", well... it just doesn't quite stay on the line. It either needed to be more restrained... or it needed to go much further.
Also... the jump-scares. They're so bad. Like seriously. This film has the single most laughable attempt at a jump I've ever seen, in a sequence involving a squirrel. It makes the "Oh, it was just a cat" jump-scare cliché look tame by comparison.
In the end, it comes down to this. "Species" has a troubled script, dated effects and a some really lame attempts at scares. But it benefits from a fun premise, a groovy creature and a handful of great performances. So it comes down to how much you're willing to forgive. Me? I liked it despite its faults, because what it does well... it does really well. And so, I'm giving it an about-average 6 out of 10. If you love your delicious 90's cheese, it's definitely one to check out! Just don't expect too much out of it.
"Rings"- A spectacular failure of a sequel that supplies neither the thrills nor heart of previous entries. It almost needs to be seen to be believed.
I've been fairly upfront in past reviews about being something of a fan of the famous (and infamous) "Ring" media franchise. From the original Koji Suzuki novels, through the highly-acclaimed original Japanese film series... and indeed through the almost prerequisite American reboot and its own follow-ups, I've been following the franchise for near 20-years now. Through highs and lows. Through ups and downs. I was so captivated by the phenomenal origins of story, that I just can't stop myself from continuing to tag along for the ride... awaiting the next installment whenever it might come.
And after a prolonged absence, the franchise finally returned to American screens with 2017's "Rings"- a belated follow-up that was released more than a decade after the previous outting. With a notably troubled production, the film was repeatedly shelved and subjected to near nonstop re-writes, re-shoots and re-edits before being dumped onto screens with little fanfare. And while it did turn a light profit, the film was met with an almost universally venomous backlash from both critics and audiences alike. People hated this film. And sadly it is for good reason.
"Rings" is a catastrophic failure. Spectacular, even. For a franchise with such high and respected a pedigree, it's almost inconceivable how often and how aggressively the film falters and falls flat. How many times it confuses rather than enthralls. And how many basic, fundamental mistakes could be fit into a mere 100 minute timeframe.
Buckle up, folks. This is gonna get ugly.
The film's narrative is a discombobulated mass of loosely connected plot-lines, mainly following a young woman named Julia (Matilda Lutz), whom is drawn into the mystery of the legendary haunted video-tape by her boyfriend Holt. (Alex Roe) At the same time, there's some strange business regarding a skeevy college professor (Johnny Galecki) whose obsessed with the tape after randomly finding it at a flea-market, some nonsensical new twists on the origin of the villainous specter Samara Morgan (Bonnie Morgan), and a whole lotta confusing scenes that seemingly add nothing to the film... including a laughably over-the-top cold open that so far as I can tell is completely unrelated to the main plot.
To the film's credit, I will say that director F. Javier Gutierrez has a keen eye for visuals, and the choice in shots and composition is suitably decent. It does indeed look enough like the prior films, and there's a few cool moments to be had. But they are too few and far between to salvage what is otherwise a complete and utter train-wreck of a film.
To start, the pacing and editing are flat-out infuriating. From the wonky opening act through the head-scratching climax, the film rockets through plot-lines and twists like a cartoon on caffeine. Characters will be introduced one minute, and by the next minute suddenly be in life-or-death peril. A storyline will be brought up in once scene... then completely dropped two scenes later without resolution. All the while, the film just moves, moves, moves. There's no breathing room whatsoever, resulting in an almost immediate inability to follow the story's development. By the fifteen minute mark, I was almost completely lost. By the thirty minute mark? I just didn't care anymore. And by the halfway point? I had to resort to reading the synopsis on Wikipedia just to understand the cavalcade of nonsense being hurled at my eyes.
This certainly isn't aided by the amateurish structure and production, which was frankly dumbfounding. The film, as it has been released, doesn't look, sound or even function like a movie. It just doesn't. Almost immediately, the placement of simple things like music or even just the title card made no sense. Yes, you read that right... the film doesn't even put the title in the right place, instead just slapping it in about ten minutes in after a few random, disconnected scenes, in a spot where it feels jarring and out-of-place. And it's immediately followed by a tender romantic scene involving our heroes... that for some reason has scary horror music playing in the background. And it just gets worse from there. Especially in the second half, when revelations begin to play out that basically make no sense and convolute the backstory to the point it starts to contradict the two movies that came before. It's like they slapped together scenes from three or four different movies, dropped in some temp music tracks, and called it a day. And don't even get me started on the dreadful production design. I'm pretty sure the main character's bedroom set is someone's front porch with a bed and a computer desk on it... because it looks like someone put a bed and a computer desk on their front porch. Seriously.
And then there's the cast. I don't want to be mean... but everyone is terrible. Absolutely, almost wonderfully terrible. It's clear the actors and actresses were cast for their looks and not their talents, because there's not a single person here who looks like they know what they're doing... except for a wonderfully dopey turn from Johnny Galecki, who hams it up in a performance that I can only call "bad faux Vincent Price." He makes the movie amusing when he's on-screen, at least. Meanwhile, our lead Matilda Lutz is so instantly bland and forgettable, I actually kept getting her confused with the other female characters, who also put in similarly apathetic performances... and who all look oddly alike. I suppose Mr. Gutierrez has a "type," so to speak.
Look, there's no other way of saying this. "Rings" is dreadful. Not only the worst of the American film trilogy, but possibly the worst of the entire overall media franchise. As bad as "Sadako 3D" was, at least it had some funny moments. "Rings" on the other hand? It's just confusingly bad. And it earns a well-deserved 1 out of 10. Hopefully the next targets Samara goes after are the director and producers who made this crap.
Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)
"Underworld: Blood Wars"- A mildly entertaining but ultimately mediocre installment in the long-running franchise. A solid script is let down by a weirdly uneven execution.
While never quite becoming a massive mainstream success, the long running and generally popular cult-franchise "Underworld" has for the most part been a great deal of fun to follow for the past decade-and-a-half. With its trademark gothic visuals and a flare for top-notch action, the ongoing saga about the battle between vampires and werewolves has remained consistently entertaining and engaging, even as it's gotten progressively sillier with each new installment.
Unfortunately, after the films reached a surprisingly pleasing crescendo in quality with the third installment "Rise of the Lycans", there was a noticeable dip in quality with the follow-up, "Awakening." It began to lose sight of why audiences fell in love with the series in the first place. And that downward trend does sadly continue in the newest chapter- "Underworld: Blood Wars." While by no means a terrible film, the fundamental issue with "Blood Wars" falls on one key issue- guidance. It boasts a pretty good story and some solid writing... but is drastically let down by a weirdly awkward and frankly clunky execution.
Kate Beckinsale returns as former Death Dealer Selene, now on the run with her friend and ally David, played again by Theo James. After being betrayed by power-hungry vampire heiress Semira (Lara Pulver), Selene and David are forced to take refuge with a clan of Nordic Vampires hiding out in the arctic. Here, they will come across revelations that could hold the key to turning the tide of the war between vampires and werewolves. But it may not be enough, as both species have become woefully misguided and bloodthirsty from centuries of pointless war, and been driven to the point of near extinction...
First things first, as always the cast is pretty darned solid. Beckinsale is as fiery and fierce as ever in her iconic role as the vampire assassin Selene, and I actually really enjoyed Theo James and how he handled the character of David this time around. Charles Dance brings a sense of class and gravitas in his returning role of Thomas, and we get a pretty good turn from Tobias Menzies as a Lycan lord named Marius. Menzies, best known for his roles in series like "Game of Thrones" and "The Crown," does well with the part and gives it a nice sense of menace, even if he's never really the main focus. The same cannot be said for Lara Pulver, however, who comes across as, well... a bit silly as the vampire villainess Semira. She plays the role as a spoiled brat, and it feels contrived and at odds with the other performances.
Writing duties are handled by series newcomers Cory Goodman and Kyle Ward, and I actually for the most part felt that they were a good fit. Their combined credits include a slew of odd and unusual films, and it benefits the story, which takes many intriguing twists and turns I might not have expected otherwise. Particularly fascinating is the addition of the Nordic vampire tribe, which have their own unique methodology and temperament... almost feeling more akin to spiritual monks than traditional blood-suckers. It gave the franchise a fresh new perspective that hearkened back to the originality of prior films, and was very much needed after the tonal inconsistencies of the previous installment.
Unfortunately, the film falls apart all too often due to the mixed efforts of director Anna Foerster, in her feature-film debut. Foerster, whom has worked on a number of high profile films in the past as a cinematographer and effects artist, sadly isn't able to muster much excitement nor style with her first major foray into filmmaking. Her sense of scope and composition is limited and stilted, and the sense of pacing she constructs is so manic as to be distracting. The film moves far too fast for its own good, and lacks a clear focus on narrative and character. Foerster knows how to block a scene technically... but not how to convey emotion or story within that scene. It's almost heartbreaking, because she doesn't slow down enough at all to allow us to take in the sights, the feelings, etc. She's just too pre-occupied on hitting beats and checkmarks. And it tanks almost every major sequence. With the exception of the admittedly well-staged action and a very fun climax, it's just woefully not well made.
It's frankly mind-boggling how the poor pacing and construction almost completely ruins what could have otherwise been a pretty decent entry in the series. And it just goes to show you how invaluable series co-creator Len Wiseman was to the success of those early installments.
"Underworld: Blood Wars" is a frustrating film. It has so much potential, but squanders much of it with its uneven and shoddy execution. And it only lessened my excitement for potential future films. My advice? Bring back Beckinsale and the series creators Wiseman and Danny McBride for one last film... hopefully one that will redeem the series after the weaknesses brought about by the one-two punch of "Awakening" and "Blood Wars." Go out with a bang, guys. Otherwise, "Underworld" might very well be finished. I'm giving "Blood Wars" a middle of the road 5 out of 10. It's just creative and entertaining enough to be worth a watch for series fans. But it's thus far the weakest of the bunch.
Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2018)
"Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell"- Big, loud and silly... so basically, it's a pretty decent 'Tremors' movie!
Chances are, if you're watching "Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell", you're either a die-hard fan of the long-running cult franchise, or you just stumbled across it on Netflix and put it on in a whim. Either way, you could definitely do a lot worse. As far as sixth-films in low-budget schlock series go... "A Cold Day in Hell" is pretty serviceable. Sure, it never quite recaptures the wonderful mixture of thrills and laughs that the original had in spades. Heck, it's not even one of the better entries in the series. But it is a fun one for sure. And as a fan of "Tremors" for well over twenty years, I enjoyed every silly moment of it.
Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) and his loud-mouthed son Travis (Jamie Kennedy) are in for a new adventure when graboids appear in the Canadian arctic. Together with a host of new characters, including a beautiful graboid-enthusiast (Jamie-Lynn Money) with a surprising tie to Burt's past, they set out to destroy this deadly threat. However, things take a dark turn when ole' Burt realizes he's been infected with a deadly graboid-based parasite, and will need to capture one alive in order to find a cure!
Part of the thing I've always loved about "Tremors" is the fact it's one of the few horror (well, horror-comedy) series that really and honestly cares about continuity. These films are peppered with references and callbacks, and "A Cold Day in Hell" is perhaps the most bombastic of the bunch in this respect. A large portion of the plot hinges on events that occurred several movies back, and it gives the movie a sort-of fun appeal that rewards longtime franchise fans. "Tremors" is almost episodic in that sense, and I really dig the direction they're taking the series in.
The central cast is also pretty darned good. As always, Michael Gross is the stand-out among them, and Burt is as likable (and wonderfully unlikable) as ever. You really get the sense that Gross absolutely loves the series to death, and he never phones it in. I also really liked Jamie Kennedy this time around. Scandalous, I know! Kennedy has gotten his share of flack in the past due to his poor choices in film roles, but I think "Tremors" is a good fit for him. I particularly thought he did quite well when given some honest emotional beats to work with later in the film. Jamie-Lynn Money is also incredible adorable and quite a good fit for the series, as a sort-of awe-struck oddball that's pulled into the journey. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is otherwise generally forgettable though, and tend to sort-of disappear into the background.
Direction is handled by Don Michael Paul, whom also helmed the supremely underrated fifth entry in the series. While I could do with a little less shaky-cam, Paul does quite well for the most part with the script by series veteran John Whelpley. I've really admired how he's able to work with what is clearly a microscopic budget, and gives the movies a sense of scope that a lesser filmmaker would certainly lack. This looks and feels like a $30 million dollar film... when its actual budget is probably only about one-tenth that.
Unfortunately, all this praise does come with one pretty severe trade-off. And that's the fact that... this movie is pretty darned silly. Even by "Tremors" standards. There's a definite over-reliance on goofy gags and dopey character beats that start to feel a little contrived after a while. Especially in the first half, which is pretty much just a bunch of jokes and one-liners strung together by a loose storyline. The structure is also quite scattershot in the first act, and the film moves a bit unevenly. I have the sneaking suspicion that there wasn't a finished script when filming began, and it was written on the fly. And yeah... a few too many jokes fall flat on their face.
Thankfully, the sheer fun-factor at play does help you get through these issues, and by the midway point, the film course-corrects into sheer "Tremors" bliss. You just gotta get through about a half hour of nonsense before you start getting to the good stuff.
On the whole, this "Tremors" fan was generally pretty pleased by "A Cold Day in Hell." Yeah, you gotta contend with a somewhat lame opening act and some unfunny gags before it starts to get good. But once it gets going, you'll definitely forgive it for its faults. Strictly as a longtime series fan, I'm giving it a pretty good 7 out of 10. It won't win over any newcomers, but it'll get the job done for people who have followed this delightful series from the beginning.
Community: Mixology Certification (2010)
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E10- "Mixology Certification")
(This is the thirty-fifth installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
In comparison to most previous season two episodes, "Mixology Certification" is unexpectedly quiet and deliberate in its structure and story; as it ponders on heady and lofty ideas such as maturation and addiction. It's a refreshing change-up, providing some much-needed contrast that hearkens back to some of the wonderful character-centric episodes from the more restrained but still stellar first season. All the while, creator Dan Harmon and his merry cast and crew still push the characters and overall narrative forward in new and unexpected ways. And while it might not be one of the season's best, it's still a very charming and well-accomplished installment in the "Community" saga.
It's Troy's (Donald Glover) birthday, and the study-group is shocked to learn that despite an initial misunderstanding, he's actually turning 21. As in the legal drinking age in the US. As Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) bicker over which bar to take Troy to for his first legal drink, Troy faces his future as a grown man, Annie (Alison Brie) has something of a "quarter-life crisis" after realizing that her habitual planning and over-achieving is leading her nowhere... and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) worries, as she is well-known in the local bar circuit due to a few troubled years where she struggled with a drinking problem.
"Mixology Certification" is one of Troy's finest episodes to date in the series, and it really goes to show how invaluable an asset to the series Donald Glover really was. He takes center stage with ease, and gives a thoughtful and well-executed performance that shows us a new side of the character. Bravo, Mr. Glover! Bravo! I also really admired what the episode did for the characters of Annie and Shirley, who get some great moments to shine, in addition to a fair share of good jokes. While the series does on the whole lean on Jeff and Britta quite a bit more than the other characters, it's nice seeing them pushed to the side for an episode. Oh, and Danny Pudi fans fear not. He might not be heavily featured, but Abed does have a quirky little subplot involving delightful guest-star Paul F. Tompkins that provides plenty of giggles and chuckles throughout.
"Community" is one of the best sitcoms in recent memory thanks in no small part to how well it juggles abstract, conceptual comedy and earnest, honest handling of character. And "Mixology Certification" is definitely a prime example of this done very well. While I am going to knock off a single point simply for the fact that the episode does start to feel a little formulaic in its second half, I'd still whole-heartedly recommend it to all fans, new and old alike. And it easily earns a fantastic 9 out of 10 from me.
"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"- Who'd have thought such an unnecessary and belated sequel could not only be good... but also be better than the original?
In the months leading up to the release of 2017's "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle", pretty much all you could hear was moans and groans from the collective film-going audience. People were upset that the beloved 1995 Robin Williams classic was getting a sequel. Purists were infuriated that the movie was updating the treacherous game for modern times. Online commentators couldn't get over co-star Karen Gillan's laughably skimpy outfit and took pot-shots at the movie over it. This is one of those films that just couldn't catch a break.
Yet, something happened. Early reviews weren't just solid- they were absolutely glowing. A slew of sneak-preview screenings garnered extremely positive feedback from audiences. And when the film was finally released, it earned a near-unanimous acclaim. For a film that just couldn't catch a break, "Welcome to the Jungle" became a welcome and fantastic example of that old saying "never judge a book by its cover." Everyone was so wrapped up in pre-release drama and accusations... we just never considered that it might have not only been good- it might have actually been better than the original.
Twenty years after the original adventure, a group of modern-day high school students all find themselves stuck in detention for varying reasons. Neurotic geek Spencer (Alex Wolff), meat-headed football star Anthony (Ser'Darius Blain), awkward loner Martha (Morgan Turner) and self-obsessed popular-girl Bethany (Madison Iseman). While sorting old magazines for recycling, the group discovers a mysterious video-game entitled "Jumanji" and boot it up, only to find themselves magically pulled inside of the game. Now occupying the bodies of the characters they chose (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black), the troubled teenagers must complete the game's objective and solve increasingly difficult "levels" in order to escape. Along the way, they find a new ally in Alex (Nick Jonas), a long-lost kid who has been stuck in the game since 1996, all while being tracked by the game's villainous baddie Russell Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), whom has attained control over Jumanji's animal kingdom.
The greatest treats of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" are the playful and creative tone the story takes, and the excellent cast who have a grand time hamming it up for the camera. Co-written by Chris McKenna of "Community" fame, the script is an absolute blast and a half that both pays tribute to the original film while also taking the story in interesting new directions. The idea of Jumanji transforming itself into a video-game to attract modern teenagers is actually really clever, and it keeps the sequel fresh and unique while still remaining true to the original. There's also a ton of really fun meta-humor that fans of modern games will absolutely adore. I really got a kick over how the secondary characters can only speak a few specific lines over and over, in a playful nod to how video-game NPC's usually only have a handful of programmed responses. And the uproariously funny fact that Gillan's aforementioned skimpy outfit is a satirical swipe at how games often objectify female characters. (Like I said... never judge a book by its cover...)
This is aided quite well by director Jake Kasdan's keen eye for visuals and sharp sense of pacing. The film's action set-pieces are genuinely thrilling, the humor is well-delivered and there's almost never a dull moment to be had. Kasdan has honed his skills throughout the years with some delightful projects, including the woefully underrated "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story", and here, that experience pays off in spades. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
But perhaps the films greatest achievement is the absolutely outstanding cast. Particularly Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black, who get to play against type and seem to relish in this in each and every moment. Everyone knows Johnson is one kick-butt dude... so it's a lot of fun seeing him playing the role of a neurotic teen whose allergic to just about everything. Gillan often plays sexy side-kicks or treacherous characters, which makes for a good contrast when she's playing an uncomfortable weirdo who can't talk to guys and doesn't like to be noticed. Hart's an absolute hoot playing a giant linebacker stuck in a diminutive body. And Jack Black... my god, Jack Black is outstanding as a popular teen girl stuck in a middle-aged man's body. He gets the biggest laughs of the film, and wisely never plays the part too broad. He's just perfect, perfect, perfect.
It's a genuine surprise just how much fun this film is. I know as a 90's kid myself, I had my standards set high and thought nothing could come close to the original. And I was very pleasantly shocked when I walked out of the theater and realized that in many ways, "Welcome to the Jungle" is better than the original. It's sharp. Exciting. Hilarious. It really is the perfect continuation. Sure I could nit-pick the fact that the villainous Van Pelt is a bit under-developed. And I could argue that a few of the effects don't quite work. But on the whole... yeah. If you loved the original, I can't imagine you wouldn't love this stellar sequel just as much if not more.
I'm giving "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" an excellent 9 out of 10 for its sheer, infectious fun-factor. Definitely go in with an open mind and give it a shot. Because take it from me... no matter what pre-conceived notions you might have, it'll defy your expectations in the best of ways!
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E09- "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design")
(This is the thirty-fourth installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
Everyone loves a good mystery, conspiracy or conundrum. The world is obsessed with notions of government cover-ups and slimy corporate schemes. False fronts put in place to hide seedy ulterior motives. And of course, when "Community" decides to explore this topic, it makes for an excellent half-hour of televised hilarity! "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Designs" might not be one of the best episodes of the series when placed in serious retrospect. It gets a little wonky towards the end and some beats feel a bit contrived. But the exceptional entertainment factor it creates make it easily one of the funniest, silliest and wildest episodes in the series' exception second season.
Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) is onto resident slacker Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), and confronts him about an aberration on his schedule- a "Conspiracy Theory" work-study that seemingly doesn't exist... despite Jeff's insistence that it very much does. When Jeff's Conspiracy professor "Professorson" (Kevin Corrigan) appears and confirms the class to the dean, all seems well... Until Jeff reveals to Annie (Alison Brie) that the professor and the class don't really exist, and he has no clue who this mysterious man is. And so, it becomes a race to discover the truth- does the class exist? Did Jeff make it all up? And just who is this enigmatic professor "Professerson"? At the same time, Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) begin construction on a blanket-fort in their dorm-room... which quickly goes out of hand when the entire dormitory decides to join-in and expand on their creation!
Much like the earlier "Basic Rocket Science", this episode succeeds largely thanks to fully committing to its insane concept, and taking it to the extreme. It really goes for broke in both of its main plot-lines, and it's just a ton of fun to watch- especially when the two begin to cross-over around the midway point. The fantastic Kevin Corrigan is a welcome addition to the cast with his mysterious yet amusing delivery, and the writing of series regular Chris McKenna is top-notch stuff. It's consistently amusing and there's never a dull moment to be had. And of course, those familiar with later seasons will see the seeds being planted for future misadventures, though I will not spoil them for those who haven't seen the entire series. On the whole, yeah... this is just a great episode.
Honestly, the only thing I could possibly say to the detriment of "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" is that it does start to fall apart under its own weight towards the end. A climactic confrontation is held that I will not give away... but there's just a few too many twists and turns for my personal liking. And yet- it still kinda works in its own delightful way. It just goes to show you that even when there are some minor flaws, "Community" is always able to recover and rise above. And that's a big part of why it remains one of my favorite shows of all time. And so, I give "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" an excellent 10 out of 10. It might not perfect, but it's darned entertaining and well-worth checking out again and again!
"Unsane"- Steven Soderbergh's latest is a well-refined and generally engrossing thriller, even if its 'Look, this was shot on an iPhone!' gimmick doesn't quite pay off.
An eclectic filmmaker with more than thirty years of experience, Steven Soderbergh is going through something of a career-renaissance as of late after he want a tad-bit mainstream in the early 2000's. From his surprise 2017 comedy-treat "Logan Lucky" through his more personal and experimental side-projects like 2009's "The Girlfriend Experience", the past ten years have been pretty good for Soderbergh's career. At least from an artistic standpoint. And in many ways, his most recent film- a tense psychological thriller entitled "Unsane"- is an extension of this. It's a taut and absorbing tale that blurs the line between insanity and reality and makes us question everything we see, while also making use of a truly remarkable but ultimately misplaced gimmick- it was all shot entirely on a consumer-grade cell-phone.
Claire Foy stars as Sawyer, a young woman suffering depression as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Growing cold and detached from her day-to-day life, she goes to visit a psychiatric facility in an attempt to find someone to just talk to- only to find herself unwillingly admitted against her wishes when she is deemed a threat to herself and to others. Stuck inside with a group of extremely distressed mental patients with varying degrees of functionality, she begins to slowly lose her mind. And the situation is only made all the worse when she comes to believe that a friendly orderly (Joshua Leonard) is the same obsessed stalker that threw her life into such chaos and started her downward spiral years ago...
Very much an actor's film, "Unsane" benefits from some strong and compelling performances from virtually all involved. Foy makes for one fantastic protagonist- we can understand her plight and identify with her pain; sympathizing with her and rooting for her to solve the mystery. And yet, she plays the role just right in that you also do have a sneaking suspicion she might genuinely be losing her mind and imagining everything. It aids in the film's progression exceptionally, and leaves you constantly on edge. Leonard, who is probably best known for co-starring in the 1999 horror classic "The Blair Witch Project" is also a great deal of fun. He plays sort-of a duel role, both as a well-meaning orderly and also as Sawyer's obsessed stalker in flashbacks, and it's a lot of fun trying to figure out his motivations and who he really is- something that the bulk of the film is built around solving. I also really appreciated Jay Pharoah as Nate, a fellow inmate to whom Sawyer forms a close and personal bond. While it is a relatively small supporting role, Pharoah adds a lot of heart to the movie, almost serving as a voice-of-reason in a place of nothing but sheer madness.
The script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer is sharp and well-executed, with a great sense of pacing and a very subtle air of dread permeating throughout. Characters are well-established and developed, there is a definite building of suspense throughout each and every scene, and the many twists and revelations come at a natural and appropriate rate. Sure, you have to sometimes suspend your disbelief a bit to go along with the story, which I've seen many complaints about... but I'm alright with that. And when he's at his best, director Soderbergh has an absolute blast with the material. There are some great sequences of pure visual direction that aid in complimenting the narrative, and it's clear that a lot of thought and care was put into the film's direction. On the whole, yeah... this is a very well-made film.
However, this comes with a trade-off. And it is a pretty steep one. That being the film's central gimmick of being shot with an iPhone using over-the-counter lens attachments and some free filmmaking apps. And look, it does work at times, lending the film a certain intimate and manic energy. But the issue is, for the most part... it feels wholly pointless. Only done to be proven that it can be done. And that's something we already know thanks to the glory of the internet. We know that thanks to the advancement in technology, it's not only feasible, but actually pretty easy to make good-looking projects using cheap equipment. But here? It just kinda feels contrived. Especially in a few key scenes that were clearly shot early on, and where it's clear the crew are still getting used to the process. There are some moments here that feel weirdly cheap and lacking in effort. I'm sure there was plenty of effort put in... but it doesn't show up on-screen because they decided to go this particular route. It is a bit sad seeing a major movie release made by such a high quality filmmaker that at times objectively looks worse than my bad student-films from the early 2000's. (Which were mostly shot in standard-definition on Digital-8 no less.) It's just so... distracting, and it can take you out of the movie at times.
But this one admittedly major complaint aside... I'd still whole-heartedly recommend "Unsane." Thanks to a clever story, good direction and fantastic performances, it remains a worthwhile thriller. And it just goes to show how talented a man Steven Soderbergh really is. While it's "Look at me! I was shot on an iPhone!" gimmick distracts more than it benefits the film, in no way does it ruin the experience. It just takes it down a few points. And so, I'm giving "Unsane" a very good, but not quite perfect 8 out of 10. The experimentation behind-the-scenes might have been kinda pointless, but it's still a pretty darned good little thriller.
Tomb Raider (2018)
"Tomb Raider" (2018)- The best video-game-to-film adaptation since 1995's 'Mortal Kombat.' Generally well-acted and executed despite a handful of silly moments.
It seems so strange, but despite nearly 30 years of effort... Hollywood so far hasn't really gotten the grasp on adapting video-games to film. And this is despite the fact that many modern games are incredibly cinematic in scope and story, and could very easily be adapted to the big-screen. Yet, despite their efforts, studios just haven't quite gotten it down yet. Sure, there has been the occasion decent effort- Christophe Gans' "Silent Hill" and Paul W.S. Anderson's "Mortal Kombat" definitely coming to mind- but for the most part... for every one decent video-game-movie that's released, there's about a dozen or so duds that get dumped into theaters and forgotten quickly after.
And while 2018's "Tomb Raider" movie reboot might not quite be the definitive adaptation to finally break that curse and show the world that games can be turned into quality films... it's definitely one of the best attempts thus far. Heck, I'd say it's easily the single best attempt since the aforementioned 1995 release "Mortal Kombat." Despite some needless liberties taken with the narrative and a handful of shaky moments that don't add up, it largely succeeds thanks to sharp direction, a good sense of pacing and some excellent performances by all involved- especially Alicia Vikander, who lights up the screen as our new Lara Croft.
Lara Croft (Vikander) is a woman lost- haunted by the disappearance of her millionaire-father Richard (Dominic West) seven years ago, and unsure of where to go in life as she enters adulthood, she wastes away her hours doing odd jobs and taking part in illegal street races. However, upon discovering a series of clues that hint to her father's potential whereabouts, she sets off on a personal journey to try and solve the mystery behind his vanishing... which brings her to a supposedly cursed island where her father's vile former associate Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) has set up camp. Soon enough, Lara realizes she must stop Vogel, whom is seeking out an ancient tomb whose contents could spell doom for all humanity!
Director Roar Uthaug (which is a fantastic name, by the way) executes the film quite well, from a script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons. (Seriously, the credits have some awesome sounding names...) His camerawork and sense of composition is slick and stylish, and he very-much takes many visual cues from the 2013 video-game reboot from which this film takes the majority of its inspiration. A stand-out scene featuring a collapsing plane perched atop a waterfall being particularly breathtaking, and amongst the finest uses of both practical and digital effects so far this year. The storyline and pacing is fast and breezy, and there's never a dull moment, which is quite the feat in a film juggling as many characters and plot-threads as this film does. On the whole- the production is solid all around.
And the cast is just electric. Goggins is a delight as our villainous presence. While he might not be a household name, he's definitely a well-known and much-beloved character actor, and he does a great job with the material he's given. West is likable and charming as Lara's long-lost father, and the flashbacks featuring him definitely give the film a slight emotional core that comes much appreciated. And Daniel Wu is a ton of fun as one of Lara's collegues- a drunken ship-captain who she ropes into her journey. There's also some really nice supporting roles, including an extended cameo by Nick Frost as a pawn-store owner that add a lot of flair to the film. Great performances all around!
But the standout here is definitely Vikander as our titular 'Tomb Raider.' She's just a blast and a half. The film is very much an origin story, and Vikander is clearly having the time of her life showing Lara's evolution from damaged young girl to no-nonsense woman. She's charming. She's likable. She's spunky and endearing. And she owns the screen, giving a perfect balance of vulnerability and determination that helps her define the role of Lara Croft. Plus... she's totally believable in the wild action set-pieces. Story goes she spent months preparing for the role and put on a ton of lean muscle, and it pays off. She's one kick-butt chick! Bravo, Ms. Vikander! Bravo!
Unfortunately, these perks do come with a bit of a trade-off, which is where the film loses some points for me. To start, the film is clearly taking the bulk of its inspiration from the 2013 video-game reboot, which eschewed the prior games in order to tell a new story with a new take on the characters. And it was perfectly fine as it was. Yet, this film unfortunately takes many liberties with the story, and thus it can feel contrived from time to time. Seriously, producers... why not just adapt the game's story beat-for-beat? Why add so much new stuff that doesn't need to be there? Additionally, I felt the film's handling of some of its subplots was a bit suspect. The most blaring example being the father-daughter relationship between Lara and Richard. It's just too simplistic, being reduced down to basic clichés we've seen a million times before. And finally... and without spoiling anything... the movie has a number of twists and turns that just didn't add up for me, and felt somewhat shoehorned. It cheapens the pay-off.
But on the whole, I can't help but say I had an absolute blast with "Tomb Raider." It's a ton of fun despite its faults, and is elevated by top-notch direction and a remarkable cast that are clearly giving their all. We may still be waiting for the definitive video-game movie (I know I'd love to see a good "Legend of Zelda" trilogy myself)... but in the meantime, this movie is definitely a valiant and very enjoyable effort! I give it a good 7.5 out of 10.
In honor of "Community"- a review of every episode. (S2;E08- "Cooperative Calligraphy")
(This is the thirty-third installment in an ongoing series. I am in the process of writing brief reviews of each and every episode of creator Dan Harmon's beloved cult-comedy series "Community." This project was originally conceived as a response to NBC's cancellation of the series before it was renewed for a sixth and final season on Yahoo. As this is a hobby, updates will come incrementally and it may take some time for me to complete this.)
It's intriguing how such a simple premise can yield such impressive results. But then again, this is "Community" we're talking about... so I should have expected as much. A brilliant satire of the good-old trope of the 'bottle episode', "Cooperative Calligraphy" is an absolutely refreshing blast of pure fun. It's concept is deceptively straightforward- but its execution is razor-sharp. And it easily leads to a complete laugh-riot that fans of the series will surely adore.
As the study-group disbands one day, Annie (Alison Brie) puts her foot down and stops everyone in their tracks with an ultimatum. She has been losing pens at an alarming rate, and believes someone in the group is stealing them... and she won't let anyone go until she finds the culprit! And thus, an odyssey of mayhem begins, all set within the simple confines of the study-room, as the study-group begin to turn against one-another and descend into depravity and chaos... all because of a couple missing pens. All the while, Abed (Danny Pudi) begins to make keen observations, noting the situation is all too familiar to him, as it closely mirrors a common cliché in sitcoms- the infamous "bottle episode."
For the uninitiated, a "bottle episode" is an episode of television that is often thrown-together due to a lack of budget, time or because another script has fallen through. Due to the restrictions, these episodes commonly only include main cast-members and generally take place in one or two settings. And that very much is the case here- only the entire thing is a clever satire, that for lack of a better word "makes fun" of this old stand-by. Whether it be through Abed's cheeky references to the idea, or the almost asinine reason why everyone is stuck in one place, "Cooperative Calligraphy" has a ton of fun with the idea.
It's also a great episode for comedic and character purposes, as startling revelations occur when the group begin to butt-heads, while amusing character-beats play out. Brie is just a blast and a half here, and chews the scenery in the best of ways. We also get some great moments from Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley and Chevy Chase's Pierce, which are welcome as they are oft-underused in the grand scheme of the show.
It's a difficult episode to really delve into because of what plays out, so I won't say any more as to avoid spoilers. But suffice to say, I absolutely love this episode, and it comes highly recommended. I have no choice- it's a 10 out of 10 for me.
Jennifer's Body (2009)
"Jennifer's Body"- A genuinely fun and cheeky concept is sadly let down by unimaginative direction and a lack of tonal focus.
As a follow-up to her breakout hit "Juno", the 2009 horror-comedy "Jennifer's Body" seemed like a logical and yet bold move for writer Diablo Cody. Something very different that would allow her to stretch her creative chops and show that she could work in other genres, while still maintaining her quirky style and clever dialogue. And indeed, it seems that from a writing perspective, Cody did a pretty good job. Though the film was much-maligned by both critics and audiences, it's clearly not the fault of the script. Scenes flow well, characters are instantly established and the dialogue is snappy and memorable.
No, the big problem here is uneven and oft-unimaginative direction and a lack of tonal focus. It takes what could have easily been a fun, wild satire along the lines of "Ginger Snaps" or "The Cabin in the Woods", and leaves it feeling dull and bland all too often, with only the occasional fleeting glimpse of brilliance.
Amanda Seyfried stars as "Needy", a classic bookish High School girl whose best friend Jennifer (Megan Fox) is the shining example of a typical shallow preppy chick. She cares about boys and fashion more than her own basic well-being or future, and her penchant for rash decisions leads her into trouble more often than not. When the two manage to escape a mysterious fire one night at a night-club, Jennifer vanishes with the lead-singer of a lousy rock-band, only to re-emerge a different person. She's been changed, now meaner and wilder than ever before... and with a thirst for young blood! Needy quickly realizes that her friend has been possessed by a demonic force courtesy a satanic ritual, and must figure out a way to stop her before she kills off the entire school!
To start, I actually really enjoyed the cast. While Fox has been the subject of scrutiny as of late due to her mainly being cast for her looks moreso than her abilities, I think she's quite good as the titular "villain" that is the demonically-possessed Jennifer. It's a character that plays to her seductive strengths, and she nails it. Seyfried is also quite charming and fun as our heroine Needy, with a pathos and vulnerability that I enjoyed. And J.K. Simmons, Johnny Simmons and Adam Brody round out the supporting cast in very good performances. Especially J.K. Simmons, who shines as a troubled teacher despite a somewhat limited amount of screentime.
And, as I mentioned above, the writing is fairly well-accomplished. Cody is a genuine talent, and her skills are on full display here for the open minded to see. Her sense of pacing is smooth and fluid. Her ear for dialogue is fantastic. And she has a lot of playful fun with conventions and tropes, both using and subverting them when she sees fit. It really is a great concept, and from a technical writing standpoint, Cody does well with the material.
Unfortunately, the direction of Karyn Kusama is what essentially tanks the entire project, despite the fun writing and gung-ho cast. While Kusama has subsequently made some really high quality films in the years since, this was unfortunately relatively early in her career- a period of time where her work was extremely hit-or-miss. Either really good... or really, really bad. And this was one of the misses. Kusama frankly seems lost behind the camera, unsure of how to juggle the comedy and the creepiness and how to deliver the tone that Cody's script is going for. So she just sort-of... lets it play out in the blandest of ways. The lighting is flat. The camerawork is standard. Composition is basic. It's not bold or imaginative or really even all that interesting to watch. And it just brings down the energy constantly because neither the jokes nor the scares land with much impact, outside of one or two somewhat inspired moments. And it has the unfortunate effect of making the two tones feel near non-existent. There's no real focus on tone, style or... frankly much of anything. The direction just makes the whole film fall flat on its face.
Thankfully, I don't think the film is a total loss. As I said, it's exceptionally well-written and the cast does a great job with the material. But it had so much more potential. And it's genuinely sad to see that potential go unfulfilled due to lackluster direction. So, I'm giving "Jennifer's Body" a very middle-of-the-road 5 out of 10. In more capable hands, this easily could have been an 8. Maybe even a 9. But as it stands- it's just mediocre.
Game Night (2018)
"Game Night"- A wild and farcical dark-comedy with great imagination and near-endless charm!
Sitting in the theater watching "Game Night", a new dark-comedy from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, I was pleasantly finding myself reminded of many a great film from yester-year. A high-concept laugh-riot, the film in a lot of ways has a really fun, kitschy quality that hearkens back to similarly toned flicks of the 80's. It's quite fascinating- the day before I went and saw the film spur-of-the-moment, I had just-so-happened to watch the amusing 1985 film-adaptation of the board-game "Clue." And in a lot of ways, "Game Night" almost feels like a sort-of spiritual successor to that film, except brought more up-to-date and benefiting a more modern cast, including the delightful Jason Bateman and a surprisingly hilarious Rachel McAdams.
The film follows married couple Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams)- who met in no small part thanks to their obsession with games and trivia, and fell in love over a shared competitive nature. The two hold a regular game-night in their home with friends (Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury), and are also looking to finally start a family, even if Max might not quite be ready yet to be a dad. However, their weekly game-night is thrown a bit amiss with the arrival of Max's successful billionaire-brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who hijacks the event and arranges for the group to take part in an interactive role-playing mystery game in which they must solve a "kidnapping." ...Except the mystery becomes all too real when some of Brooks' clients just so happen to arrive at the start of the game and actually kidnap him! With the group thinking it's all "part of the game," the stage is set for a hilarious adventure as they try to solve the mystery and as a result, get pulled into a deep web of conspiracy.
The great success of "Game Night" lays in its expert handling of such a potentially goofy concept. In lesser hands, the film could have easily imploded and fallen apart under its own weight, as it does have a degree of implausibility and requires a moderate suspension of disbelief. However, writer Mark Perez and directors Daley and Goldstein strike an absolutely perfect balance, allowing you to completely go with the ludicrous premise and buy into its many twists and turns. The film accomplishes this by playing up both the farcical humor and the genuine thrills in equal and carefully balanced measure, transitioning between the two tones with ease from scene to scene. The film establishes early that it has a degree of "cartoon logic" in application, yet also has real stakes and real danger at play. It's a juggling act- but one that works.
I was also very taken with the incredible degree of creativity and craft that Daley and Goldstein inject into the film. The direction is just sublime, with many wild choices made that aid in the film's unique tone. The most noticeable of course being how the movie is often framed to resemble games of various types and genres, with stunning use of the tilt-shift photographic technique to give establishing shots a miniaturized "board game" effect and mounted camera angles during the action set-pieces that make the sequences closely resemble a modern first-person shooter or racing game. I've seen some complaints about the handling of the visual direction, but for the life of me, I can't see why. And frankly, I think those complaints are utter hogwash. Directorially, this is one of the more fluid and creative mainstream comedies of the past decade.
The cast shines and creates a wonderful ensemble for us to follow. Fans of Jason Bateman will find a lot to like, as his dorky, identifiable "everyman" performance hits home once again. Chandler, Magnussen, Horgan, Morris and Bunbury round out the supporting characters quite nicely, and every single one is given equal opportunity to shine and stretch their comedic chops. But shockingly, the most respect must go to two specific performers that took me by surprise in the best of ways. First, is the adorable Rachel McAdams, who proves to be an absolute comedic bombshell! Most will remember her from a slew of romantic dramas with only the occasional odd comedy or thriller tossed in. Here, she goes for it in a way she hasn't before, and she's just great. She's bubbly, cute and got some genuine big laughs from me. A very happy surprise. And then there's Jesse Plemons. Oh, boy. He steals the show. While his role is relatively minor, portraying a creepy, monotone neighbor whose seemingly obsessed with Max and Annie, he's just abso-freaking-lutely hysterical. Those who only know of him from his heady dramas and his turn on the excellent "Breaking Bad" are in for a treat!
In the end, there's really not much at all I can say to the detriment of "Game Night." While it maybe takes one-too-many left-turn twists towards the end and has a few odd jokes that fall flat, for the most part, it's a resounding success thanks to its excellent cast, original premise and top-notch direction. It's a charmer and a definite treat during the usual cinematic dead-period of January through March. And it comes with the highest of recommendations. Even if the admittedly-weak trailers didn't sell you on it, I'd still say give it a shot. I did, and I adored every second of it! I'm giving "Game Night" an excellent 9 out of 10.
"The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale"- Another hearty helping of 'Soup' from the delightfully sardonic Joel McHale!
For twelve seasons, actor and presenter Joel McHale supplied sarcastic quips and consistent giggles on his E! channel comedy series "The Soup", itself a revamped spin-off of the network's prior franchise "Talk Soup." With his trademark sardonic charm, McHale lampooned and poked fun at popular culture, taking a specific aim at television and news media. And it was a fantastic bit of low-budget and even lower-brow fun with a simple format- show some clips and crack some jokes. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and "The Soup" was cancelled during the 2015 Holiday season.
Or was it?
Well, yeah. It was. But that didn't stop good-old streaming empire Netflix from digging it up, dusting it off and giving it a fresh new spit-and-polish. While it technically can't go by its classic name, "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" is for all intents and purposes a reboot of the beloved cult comedy series, boasting a near-identical format and even much of the original crew behind the scenes. And the result is a refreshing bit of fun for all fans who were hoping for another hearty helping of 'soup.'
With a slightly (and I do mean "slightly") boosted budget, McHale and his merry crew are once again showing us the best of the worst that the entertainment world has to offer, giving us clips from everything from television reality shows to sporting events to viral internet videos, and playfully poking fun at just how silly it really is. Mixed in with dopey skits, themed segments ("Sports Segment... brought to you by... BEVERAGES!") and other assorted goofiness, "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" is just about everything a fan of "The Soup" could want. Heck, the pilot even had a mini-impromptu "Community" reunion to boot, which was a nice treat for fans of McHale's other famous comedy series! (Side Note: Netflix, you already have about half the cast in your employ... make "Community" the next show you revive, please!)
Now all that being said, there is definitely going to be a bit of a transition. And I can already see the unease in the early reviews here that are lambasting the show for its faults. It's been a couple years, guys. Don't dismiss the show due to a slightly rough-around-the-edges pilot. McHale and the writers are clearly getting back into the swing of things, and you can already tell they're all having a blast and that it's gonna get better and better as it goes along. A few mistimed gags in the first episode aren't enough to derail the whole experience. As a longtime fan of both McHale and "The Soup", I had an absolute blast with "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale", and I'll definitely be tuning in every week to see what they have up their sleeves next.
I'm giving "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" a very good 8 out of 10. It has plenty of laughs to go around, and I can't wait to see the next episode.
(Note: This review may be updated in the future based on the strengths and weaknesses of future episodes.)
"Crystal Lake Memories"- An entertaining and engaging retrospective, though it lacks the sharp pacing and focus of the superior "Never Sleep Again"
From the same creative team who crafted the deliciously entertaining and incredibly engaging "Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy", "Crystal Lake Memories" is a thorough and fairly absorbing documentary that covers the entirety of the famous (and infamous) horror film franchise "Friday the 13th." Loaded with hundreds of interviews, seemingly thousands of clips and behind-the-scenes photos and a metric ton of information and informative tid-bits of trivia, this is definitely a must-see for all fans of the hockey-masked maniac Jason Voorhees.
From series creator Sean Cunningham to the plethora of men behind the mask including fan-favorite Kane Hodder, there are dozens upon dozens of interview subjects who spin yarns and fondly recall the creation of every single film in the franchise. All the while, Corey Feldman narrates with glee and we're treated to all sorts of fascinating making-of images and video. Want to know exactly how that infamous "Ki-Ki-Ki, Ma-Ma-Ma" sound effect was created? Wanna know what the incidental actors thought of one another? Want to know how hard it was to film "Part III" in state-of-the-art 3D? It's all here, along with countless other factoids.
Unfortunately, all of this comes with a pretty severe trade-off. That being that the film has a punishingly bloated run-time of nearly seven hours. Yup, you read that right! Seven. Hours. Part of what made the prior film about the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise work was that it knew when to get in and when to get out. And even then, it was still pushing it with a four-hour runtime. But the facts presented felt relevant and fascinating, the structure was sound and the pacing was fairly brisk. I can't necessarily say the same about "Crystal Lake Memories." This one just pushes it too far. Sure, you could argue that with nearly twice the films to cover, it needed to be nearly twice the length. But given how repetitive the interviews become over time, and how the same basic ideas are revisited over and over... it's easy to see that at least a full hour could have been cut out. Maybe even two. And the pacing is way too slow for its own good. There's so much more droning on in this movie... it can occasionally become hard to stay invested.
Still, that can't detract from the fact that on the whole... yeah, "Crystal Lake Memories" is a really fun experience. It's informative, mostly engaging and you'll learn quite a bit by the time the credits roll. Just don't plan to watch it all in one sitting! I'm giving it a pretty good 7 out of 10.